Big Ideas in Social Psychology and Religion

In any academic field, the results of tens of thousands of studies, the conclusions of thousands of investigators, the insights of hundreds of theorists, can usually be boiled down to a few overriding ideas. Biology offers us principles such as natural selection and adaptation. Sociology builds upon concepts such as social structure, cultural relativity, and societal organization. Music exploits our ideas of rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Which concepts might we include on our short list of social psychology’s big ideas? What basic principles are worth remembering long after you have forgotten most of what you learned in this book? And how well do these big ideas about human nature connect with those found in other fields, such as religious studies? Every religious tradition offers answers to some big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What ought we to do? So let’s ask, how do some of social psychology’s big ideas connect with those of the Jewish-Christian religious tradition that prevails in Europe and the Americas?

My list of “great ideas we ought never forget” includes four truths, each two-sided. As Pascal reminded us 300 years ago, no single truth is ever sufficient, because the world is not simple. Any truth separated from its complementary truth is a half-truth. It is in the union of partial truths—of what the Chinese call yin and yang (complementary opposites)—that we glimpse the larger reality.


How “noble in reason!” and “infinite in faculties!” is the human intellect, rhapsodized Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In some ways, indeed our cognitive capacities are awesome. The three-pound tissue in our skulls contains circuitry more complex than all the phone networks on the planet, enabling us to process information either effortfully or automatically, to remember vast quantities of information, and to make snap judgments using rule-of-thumb heuristics. One of the most human of tendencies is our urge to explain behavior, to attribute it to some cause, and therefore to make it seem orderly, predictable, and controllable. As intuitive scientists, we make our attributions efficiently and with enough accuracy for our daily needs.

Yes, echo Jewish and Christian theologians. We are made in the divine imageand given stewardship for the earth and its creatures. We are the summit of the Creator’s work, God’s own children.

Yet our explanations are vulnerable to error, insist social psychologists. In ways we are often unaware our explanations and social judgments are vulnerable to error. When observing others, we are sometimes too prone to be biased by our preconceptions, to “see” illusory relationships and causes, to treat people in ways that trigger their fulfilling our expectations, to be swayed more by vivid anecdotes than by statistical reality, and to attribute their behavior to their dispositions (for example, to think that someone who acts strangely must bestrange). Failing to recognize such sources of error in our social thinking, we are prone to overconfidence in our social judgments.

Such conclusions have a familiar ring to theologians, who remind us that we are finite creatures of the one who declares “I am God, and there is none like me” and that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 46:9 and 55:9). As God’s children we have dignity, but not deity. Thus we must be skeptical of those who claim for themselves godlike powers of omniscience (reading others’ minds, foretelling the future), omnipresence (viewing happenings in remote locations), and omnipotence (creating or altering physical reality with mental power). We should be wary even of those who idolize their religion, presuming their doctrinal fine points to be absolute truth. Always, we see reality through a dim mirror.


Our views of ourselves are fragile containers of truth. Heeding the ancient admonition to “know thyself,” we analyze our behavior, but hardly impartially. Our human tendency to self-serving bias appears in our differing explanations for our successes and failures, for our good deeds and bad. On any socially desirable dimension, we commonly view ourselves as relatively superior—as, say, more ethical, socially skilled, and tolerant than our average peer. Moreover, we justify our past behaviors; we have an inflated confidence in the accuracy of our beliefs; we misremember our own past in self-enhancing ways; and we overestimate how virtuously we would behave in situations that draw less-than-virtuous behavior out of most people. Research Anthony Greenwald (1984) speaks for dozens of researchers: “People experience life through a self-centered filter.”

That conclusion echoes a very old religious idea—that self-righteous pride is the fundamental sin, the original sin, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. Thus the Psalmist could declare that “no one can see his own errors” and the Pharisee could thank God “that I am not like other men” (and you and I can thank God that we are not like the Pharisee). Pride goes before a fall. It corrodes our relations with one another, as in conflicts between partners in marriage, management and labor, nations at war. Each side views its motives alone as pure, its actions beyond reproach. But so does its opposition, continuing the conflict.

Yet self-esteem pays dividends. Self-affirmation is often adaptive. It helps maintain our confidence and minimize our depression. To doubt our efficacy and to blame ourselves for our failures is a recipe for real failure, loneliness, or dejection. People made to feel secure and valued exhibit less prejudice and contempt for others.

Again, there is a religious parallel, in the idea that to sense an ultimate acceptance (divine “grace”—the religious parallel to psychology’s “unconditional positive regard”) is to be liberated from both self-protective pride and self-condemnation. To feel profoundly affirmed, just as I am, lessens my need to define my self-worth in terms of achievements, prestige, or material and physical well-being. It’s rather like insecure Pinocchio saying to his maker, Geppetto, “Papa, I am not sure who I am. But if I’m all right with you, then I guess I’m all right with me.”


Studies during the 1960s shocked social psychologists with revelations that our attitudes sometimes lie dormant, overwhelmed by other influences. But follow-up research was reassuring. Our attitudes influence our behavior,—when they are relevant and brought to mind. Thus our political attitudes influence our behavior in the voting booth. Our smoking attitudes influence our susceptibility to peer pressure to smoke. Our attitudes toward famine victims influence our contributions. Change the way people think and—whether we call such persuasion “education” or “propaganda”—the impact can be considerable.

If social psychology has taught us anything, it is that the reverse is also true: We are as likely to act ourselves into a way of thinking as to think ourselves into action. We are as likely to believe in what we have stood up for as to stand up for what we believe. Especially when we feel responsible for how we have acted, our attitudes follow our behavior. This self-persuasion enables all sorts of people—political campaigners, lovers, even terrorists—to believe more strongly in that for which they have witnessed or suffered.

The realization that inner attitude and outer behavior, like chicken and egg, generate one another parallels the Jewish-Christian idea that inner faith and outer action likewise feed one another. Thus, faith is a source of action. Elijah is overwhelmed by the Holy as he huddles in a cave. Paul is converted on the Damascus Road. Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah undergo an inner transformation. In each case, a new spiritual consciousness produces a new pattern of behavior.

But faith is also a consequence of action. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, faith is seen as nurtured by obedient action. For example, in the Old Testament the Hebrew word for “know” is usually a verb, designating something one does. To know love, one must not only know about love, one must act lovingly. Philosophers and theologians note how faith grows as people act on what little faith they have. Rather than insist that people believe before they pray, Talmudic scholars would tell rabbis, get them to pray and their belief will grow. “The proof of Christianity really consists in ‘following,’” declared Søren Kierkegaard (1851). To attain faith, said Pascal (1670), “follow the way by which [the committed] began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe. . . .” C. S. Lewis (1960) concurred:

Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all [these doubts] in the soul. Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.


On this incomplete list of big ideas, my final two-sided truth is that people and situations interact. We see this, first, in the evidence that social influences powerfully affect our behavior. We are the creatures of our social worlds.

Recall the studies of conformity, role playing, persuasion, and group influence. The most dramatic findings come from experiments that put well-intentioned people in evil situations to see whether good or evil prevailed. To a dismaying extent, evil pressures overwhelm good intentions, inducing people to conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. Faced with a powerful situation, nice people often don’t behave so nicely. Depending on the social context, most of us are capable of acting kindly or brutally, independently or submissively, wisely or foolishly. In one irony-laden experiment, even most seminary students en route to recording an extemporaneous talk on the Good Samaritan parable failed to stop and give aid to a slumped, groaning person—if they had been pressed to hurry (Darley & Batson, 1973). External social forces shape our social behavior.

The social-psychological idea that there are powers greater than the individual is paralleled by the religious idea of transcendent good and evil powers, symbolized in the creation story as a seductive demonic force. Evil involves not only individual rotten apples here and there. It also is a product of “principalities and powers”—corrosive forces—that can make a whole barrel of apples go bad. And because evil is collective as well as personal, responding to it takes a communal religious life.

Although powerful situations can override people’s individual dispositions, social psychologists do not view humans as mere passive tumbleweeds, blown this way and that by the social winds. Facing the same situation, different people might react differently, depending on their personality and culture. Feeling coerced by blatant pressure, they will sometimes react in ways that restore their sense of freedom. In a numerical minority, they will sometimes oppose and sway the majority. When they believe in themselves maintaining an “internal locus of control,” they sometimes work wonders. Moreover, people choose their situations—their college environments, their jobs, their locales. And their social expectations are sometimes self-fulfilling, as when we expect someone to be warm or hostile and they become so. In such ways, we are the creators of our social worlds.

To most religious traditions, that rings true. We are morally responsible—accountable for how we use whatever freedom we have. What we decide matters. The stream of causation from past to future runs through our choices.

Faced with these pairs of complementary ideas, framed either psychologically or religiously, we are like someone stranded in a deep well with two ropes dangling down. If we grab either one alone, we sink deeper into the well. Only when we hold both ropes can we climb out, because at the top, beyond where we can see, they come together around a pulley. Grabbing only the rope of rationality of irrationality, of self-serving pride or self-esteem, of attitudes-first or behavior-first, of personal or situational causation, plunges us to the bottom of a well. So instead we grab both ropes, perhaps without yet fully grasping how they come together. In doing so, we might be comforted by knowing that in both science and religion a confused acceptance of complementary principles is sometimes more honest than an oversimplified theory that ignores half the evidence.

Excerpted from Myers, D. G. (2000).Exploring Social Psychology, 2nd edition, Module 30. N.Y.: McGraw-Hill.